Teaching Chinese characters in Korea

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Bruce Humes writes:

I noticed this news item today (below) that foresees teaching young South Korean students how to read Chinese characters.

I don’t know Korean, but I’ve always been interested in how Chinese characters are used (or not) in Korean and Japanese. I look forward to the occasional piece in your Language Log, touching on topics such as what the re-emphasis on hanja signifies, why it might “boost understanding of Korean terms,” etc.

My reply:

Introduction of characters in South Korea waxes and wanes, but even when it waxes, it is very tentative and highly limited, as you can see from the article you sent me. In the north, although you don't see characters in public, apparently they do teach them in schools, although I don't know how and to what extent.  [VHM:  Perhaps one of our readers can enlighten us on this point.]

This is a topic that we have touched upon from time to time on Language Log, e.g.:

"Promoting Chinese characters in Korea" (9/20/15)

Sounds pretty much the same as the latest proposal described in the article Bruce called to my attention:

"Elementary school textbooks to contain Chinese characters" by Kim Rahn, The Korea Times (12/30/16)

Nothing earth-shattering or precedent-establishing here; South Korea has been through this again and again.  Hangul is the official writing system for both North Korea and South Korea.  They are not about to go back to Chinese characters, even partially.  North Korea banned the use of Chinese characters in public since 1964, and they have fallen out of use in South Korea since the late 1990s.  Even in the south, you can look through whole novels and not see a single character.

Notice these paragraphs from The Korea Times article:

"The characters will be used only to boost students' understanding of Korean terms," a ministry official said. "Not to put pressure on students, we will make sure schools do not force students to memorize the Chinese characters or to take a test of them."

One textbook chapter may have up to three characters, he said.

In 2014, the ministry said it would consider including Chinese characters in elementary school textbooks.

But hangeul-related civic groups opposed the idea, saying it will only aggravate academic pressure on students and cause more private tutoring.

[VHM: emphasis added]

The article notes that elementary school students have not been studying Chinese characters for nearly four decades.  Even now the Ministry of Education is only proposing that textbooks for fifth and sixth grade students may contain "up to 300 Chinese characters".

What is most interesting about the vocabulary that may be taught to the students is pointed out by Bob Ramsey in response to my observation that the latest proposal to introduce Chinese characters is tentative and limited:

No kidding. And altogether pretty unserious. But it does show there is some academic reluctance to let go of Chinese characters. "[H]elp students better understand the Korean vocabulary originating from Chinese words…" sounds a little like the rationale often used here to promote learning Latin. Still, I find it a little ironic that most of that "Chinese vocabulary" consists of your round-trip made-in-Japan words.

[VHM:  Bob is referring to my article in Sino-Platonic Papers 34]

Aside from the burden of having to memorize the complicated characters and the fact that they come from China, concerns which clearly weigh upon the minds of many Koreans, the fact that most of the "Chinese vocabulary" items were actually made up in Japan would be enough for the majority of patriotic Koreans to kill the thought of having young Koreans spend time and effort to learn the characters for them.

Jim Unger sheds further light on the subtle linguistics of the Ministry of Education (MOE) proposal:

The MOE apparently thinks that most students learn some Chinese characters outside of the regular curriculum.  How else could the inclusion of characters clarify anything for them?  Also, the MOE evidently feels that Sino-Korean and native Korean words need not be distinguished.  Otherwise the sentence "the pronunciation and meaning of the Chinese characters will be put together with the Korean words" makes no sense.  Chinese characters can visually disambiguate S-K words spelled alike in hankul, but only S-K words are written with characters, if they are used at all; by contrast, in Japanese, characters often take native glosses.

Finally, from an experienced Korean language teacher:

Chinese characters disappeared from textbooks in 1971 by the government’s “use of Hangeul only policy” in Korea. Now, most Koreans, including people in their 40s like myself, are used to reading Korean-only texts since we rarely encounter Chinese characters in everyday life and almost everything is written in Korean text. Linguists and educators are worried that the younger generation tends to make more orthographic errors that will lead to poor writing, but maybe that’s how the Korean language is evolving. In my opinion, Korean educators and policy makers should think again before imposing this policy of adding Chinese characters in 4th and 5th year curricula. Students will learn Chinese characters at secondary schools anyway, and the policy of including Chinese characters would be a retrograde step, similar to including Latin in elementary school curricula in the US.

All things considered, the present proposal to introduce characters into the elementary school curriculum in South Korea seems less due to language teaching and learning needs than to the sinophilic propensities of those behind it.

[Thanks to Ross King]


  1. Dave Cragin said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 9:20 pm

    Bob Ramsey’s response that the rationale for Koreans learning characters is similar to that that was previously used to promote the learning of Latin in the West is almost exactly how a law student at UPenn explained it to me. She said that for Korean lawyers, knowing the Chinese character gave them a more precise understanding of the meaning of words. That it's like learning Latin and Greek for English speakers. She said this is just for Koreans in the legal field, not science. A Korean colleague, who is a scientist, confirmed this.

    However, I know little Korean so I couldn't discuss this in more depth.

    I also wonder about Bruce Humes’ comment, i.e., how can you write Korean with Chinese characters? At a talk in Philly, I noticed a woman taking notes in Chinese. Later, I spoke to her in Chinese and she immediately said “I’m Korean, I don’t speak Chinese.” I asked her about her notes and she said it was easier to take notes using characters.

    This fascinated me: she’s hearing a talk in English, translating it to Korean, but writing in Chinese characters. Her age may partly explain this. She was 71 years old and my understanding is that Chinese character use was more common in older generations (she wasn't an attorney).

  2. Robert Davis said,

    January 3, 2017 @ 11:31 pm

    I once saw a Korean newspaper (I have no understanding of Korean) and I asked: why Chinese characters in a Korean newspaper? Perhaps to give it some flair and a "Je ne sais quoi" quality?

  3. Taegyung Eom said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 3:42 am

    To Dave: One strong point of using Chinese characters when you are taking notes is that they have less ambiguity compared to the corresponding Hangul syllables (which only give the Sino-Korean pronunciation). It may cost a few more strokes, but you may save some time and space to achieve the same understandability as writing in Hangul. (Think of theologians writing 'Θ' instead of 'GOD', or mathematicians writing 'π' instead of 'ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.')
    I think the old lady must have written only part of her notes in Chinese characters, because writing full ideas in Chinese characters requires real translation, thus virtually impossible for those who don't know either literary or colloquial Chinese, of which most Koreans, even the seniors unless very highly educated in a traditional way, are illiterate.

    To Robert: Virtually all of the major Korean newspapers (since some time in the 1990s) write everything in Hangul. Some rather traditional ones may use some Chinese characters in headlines to reduce ambiguity, (I suppose headlines are more ambiguous than normal sentences in most languages?) but I am quite sure that they have some reading aids in Hangul either above or below the Chinese characters, just like furiganas in Japanese. I have never seen a contemporary newspaper that uses Chinese characters without Hangul pronunciation.

  4. J. Goard said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 4:44 am

    Korean newspapers overwhelmingly use characters as abbreviations for countries that have Hanja names, as well as "North" and "South", but it doesn't strike me at all as being a pretense at sophistication. It's just part of efficient headlinese, directing your attention to the main topic of the article. And, of course, it's not just that these particular characters are used, but that they're used in an extremely restricted semantic space relative to their use in Chinese (or older mixed-system Korean writing). 美 in a contemporary Korean headline never means 'beautiful', for example; it always means 'the USA'.

    From my perspective, synchronically it's just a highly restricted code, like our abbreviations for the chemical elements, or like "lb" for pound. These symbols very well might not go away, but they don't even really count as using full-fledged characters anymore.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 9:27 am

    @Taegyung Eom

    "I think the old lady must have written only part of her notes in Chinese characters…".

    I was thinking exactly the same thing.

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 10:24 am

    In note-taking, Chinese characters may sometimes function simply as shorthand, as Taegyung Eom explains. Writing 日 instead of 일 for 'day' and 月 instead of 월 for 'month' saves a few strokes, as does writing 生 (a character that can mean 'revive') to indicate that a crossed-out passage should be restored.

  7. Dave Cragin said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 8:23 pm

    Taegyung Eom – Thanks much – that explains it! I’ve heard a similar perspective from Japanese, i.e., Chinese characters have a much more precise meaning. You’re probably right that the woman’s notes contained more than just Chinese characters. I glanced at them for just a moment.

    The woman impressed me: I asked if she was a Professor and she explained she was a college student (at the young age of 71) and said she was considering taking Mandarin next semester.

  8. C. Forrest Treaze said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

    Taegyung Eom wrote: "Some rather traditional ones may use some Chinese characters in headlines to reduce ambiguity, […] but I am quite sure that they have some reading aids in Hangul either above or below the Chinese characters, just like furiganas in Japanese. I have never seen a contemporary newspaper that uses Chinese characters without Hangul pronunciation."
    While it's been a while since I've last seen a paper edition of a newspaper targeting Koreans in Korea, I can offer this example of a non-major, internet-only, topical daily news website that does use hanja:
    LL readers curious about hanja usage may be interested in the following observations, which are only about said website and should not be understood as being representative of Korean media in general:
    Most headlines currently displayed on said website's main page have no hanja at all. Those that do don't have them for all Sino-Korean morphemes. The most hanja-rich current headline is “조태용 靑안보실 1차장, 訪美…北 ICBM 위협·북핵 공조 논의”, where “North Korea(n)” appears twice, once as sinogram 北 and once as alphabetic 북 in 북핵 “NK nuclear/nuke(s)?”, and this particular character is hardly necessary for any disambiguation because 북 almost always either means "north" or is a transcription of English "book", it's not used for any other common Sino-Korean morphemes nor any common native Korean morphemes. As far as I can tell with my very limited understanding of Korean headlinese, I think J. Goard's comment on hanja usage is spot on. We see that they are used (not only) for countries. The headlines are accompanied by slightly longer sub-headers whose language I suspect to be halfway between headlinese (with its tendeny to drop case suffixes and aversion to fully spell out verbs, resulting in impressive noun piles; I'd love to see a few Korean garden path headlines) and what is used for the main text. Perhaps these sub-headers can be used to clear up any doubts about the meaning of the actual headline, thus reducing the need for any kind of furigana. Also, while HTML makes tiny furigana above or below characters possible, I suspect every Korean news website would simply use brackets instead. The articles' main text rarely contains hanja; an example is “지난해 7차 당(黨) 대회 때 나온 과제들”.
    The website was established twelve years ago, and I'm not aware of a paper edition, so they do not retain hanja out of any centuries-old tradition in the company.

  9. C. Forrest Treaze said,

    January 4, 2017 @ 11:01 pm

    In my post above, I forgot to say that all hang(e)ul in the example headline “조태용 靑안보실 1차장, 訪美…北 ICBM 위협·북핵 공조 논의” is Sino-Korean, just to show that even this website that does use hanja does so very selectively. Its headlines all contain at least some Sino-Korean, yet most are shown without hanja.

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

    The headline "조태용 靑안보실 1차장, 訪美…北 ICBM 위협·북핵 공조 논의" is a good example of hanja used as shorthand in headlinese.

    If you write just 청안보실 instead of 靑안보실 Cheong anbosil, the meaning wouldn't be immediately apparent; in spoken language, it wouldn't sound natural unless you spelled it out as 청와대 안보실 Cheong'wadae anbosil. 청와대 (靑瓦臺) Cheong'wadae ("Blue House", literally "Blue Roof-tiled Pavilion") is South Korea's presidential residence, and 靑 Cheong is the shorthand in headlinese. In spoken Korean, though, you cannot shorten 청와대 Cheong'wadae to 청 Cheong. It's as if WH was the newspaper shorthand for White House.

    The word 訪美 (방미) bangmi is interesting. It means a U.S. visit (where 美 (미) Mi is short for 美國 (미국) Miguk, the U.S.), and 방미 bangmi certainly can be used as a noun meaning a U.S. visit in spoken Korean. But here, it takes the place of where a complete predicate would be in a full sentence: 미국을 방문한다 Miguk-eul bangmunhanda "visits the U.S.", which incidentally is how it appears in the accompanying article. In Korean headlinese, the particles and the –하다 -hada verb endings get taken out, so you might expect 미국 방문 Miguk bangmun, but it is usually further compressed down to just 訪美 (방미) bangmi even though it is quite different from how it would be expressed in complete sentences.

    So you can see that the hanja is not used for all cases of Sino-Korean (the entirely headline consists of Sino-Korean as C. Forrest Treaze points out), but only where it helps to decode the newspaper headlinese shorthand. If you wrote these all in hangul, then it would take a moment for a Korean speaker to decipher it because when you speak or write in complete sentences, you don't use these kinds of shorthands unless they already form part of a stock expression; you never say just 청 Cheong for 청와대 Cheong'wadae or 미 Mi for 미국 Miguk, just like in English people don't just say "H" for "hydrogen" and "C" for "carbon" even if these are the symbols used as shorthands for the elements in technical writing.

  11. Jean-Michel said,

    January 7, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

    A couple of years ago I bought a deluxe Blu-ray set of a Korean film that included an "art book" with production designs and storyboards. The notes on the storyboards were mostly in Hangul, but Chinese characters were occasionally used for certain purposes, most commonly 左 and 右 ("left"/"right") to indicate camera movements–presumably because these are both more distinct and quicker to write than the Hangul equivalents.

  12. Eidolon said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 8:20 pm

    Students in Korea *have* to learn hanja in secondary school? In that case, I could see why they'd want to introduce it first in primary school. Still, aren't we being a bit hasty to translate hanja as "Chinese characters?" My understanding is that South Koreans acknowledge that hanja is from China but, like the Japanese, do not consider it "Chinese culture" and certainly not "Japanese culture." So I'm a bit confused when it's brought up as a potentially intrusive cultural element.

  13. Jongseong Park said,

    January 11, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

    @Eidolon, most Koreans would have no issue with translating 한자 hanja as "Chinese characters". In Korean, that's what Chinese characters are called, whether they are used for Korean, Chinese, or Japanese. In fact, using the word hanja according to the Korean pronunciation for Chinese characters specifically as they are used in Korean would strike some Koreans as strange, as if Korean used a separate term for the Greek alphabet used in English as opposed to Greek. On that note, I don't think many English speakers think about Greek culture when they use Greek letters like pi either, any more than Koreans think about Chinese culture when they use Chinese characters.

  14. C. Forrest Treaze said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

    @Jongseong Park, thank you for explaining the headline, and for your LL comments in general.

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